A Murmuration of Saints

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Murmuration

I recently stayed on the campus of a seminary in Kentucky. On a walk one evening I noticed the seminary had put up a bunch of signs around the campus that said: “Attempt Something Big” and “Change the World.”

There’s nothing wrong with attempting something big, or changing the world, but I believe our primary call is faithfulness to what God is calling us to be and do in any given moment, often with the person and place that is right in front of us. These are small things done with great love, as Mother Teresa said. The work may be humble, and some of the change may be invisible to you, but you never know where your influence is going to stop.

The image that comes to mind, actually, is of those flocks of starlings that shift and undulate and swoop in coordinated patterns in the sky, often in groups of a thousand or more birds.

This is called a “murmuration of starlings.” Lately I’ve been mildly obsessed with this phenomenon, watching videos and reading everything I can about them. (Murmuration has become one of my favorite words. Also, I put two especially great videos at the bottom of this post.)

Scientists are using computers, advanced math, and systems theories to try to figure out how such large groups seem to share one mind. I was interested to learn that even in a flock of thousands, one bird is really only able to pay attention to its seven closest neighbors. When one bird changes directions, its closest neighbors follow suit, and then the change ripples through the flock as a whole, the way the “wave” ripples through the crowd at a baseball game, though incredibly fast. That’s a murmuration.

In other words, what looks like a mass movement is actually very “local.”

There’s a lot scientists don’t know about murmurations, and there are places where my metaphor breaks down (for example, some of the birds’ actions are a defense mechanism to protect themselves from danger), but I wonder if this is how God might view the Church—or whether it might be a useful metaphor for how we can understand the Church: swooping, in unison, splitting, then re-combining, first in this shape and now in this one, driven by the Spirit and then by fear, but always essentially local: a great flock of witnesses, a murmuration of saints.

This is a gentle reminder that we don’t have to worry about creating a mass movement or making history turn out a certain way. We’re called to be faithful to the decisions right in front of us, which are almost always small and local, but which are linked across the Church in ways that are sometimes intentional and sometimes invisible.

 

 

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